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Event Highlights

Using nasi lemak to design our way out of the world’s food problems

7 min read

Wong Sher Maine joins in a design thinking workshop to tackle challenges that threaten the future of food in Singapore.

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ThinkPlace used nasi lemak (a favourite local dish) as an entry point to get participants to examine the stages required in the creation of this local dish, before identifying threats and mitigation efforts.

A quartet of young men in their 20s are working on launching a mobile phone app that would match food vendors (with excess cooked food) to consumers who would be happy to eat it at a lower price.

It will be called Robin Food – in a nod to Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. It directly addresses the issue of food wastage. So when ThinkPlace, a strategic design consultancy, organised a sampler design thinking workshop “The Future of Food in Singapore” during the Singapore Design Week 2019, all four turned up.

Said Sean Tin, 20, who heard of the event via Reddit and got his team-mates to join in, “We wanted to hear more ideas and network.”

Bringing people from all walks of life together to solve a problem using the design thinking process in one afternoon was a bit of an experiment.

The Singapore Design Week was a great platform for ThinkPlace to try a quick experiment bringing together the ecosystem – typically their design thinking projects would involve their in-house team of designers conducting research on the ground through interviews, collaborating with others and exploring diverse ideas, over a lengthier period of time.

Solutions Through Collaboration

Design thinking is a process that uses elements from the designer’s toolkit (like empathy and experimentation) to address complex challenges in a holistic and innovative manner. Its human-centred approach places end-users and their needs at the heart of things.

A participant sharing his idea for a Leftover Food Cookbook.

Using design thinking to solve complex world problems is what ThinkPlace, which has offices in Singapore, Australia, Kenya and New Zealand, does. For instance, it has helped to design solutions to the problem of getting nutritious food to poorer communities around the world.

Said Debbie Ng, the Principal of ThinkPlace in Singapore, “Our approach requires a human-centered view. We ask who are the people eating the food? Who are the people who are producing the food? We spend time immersing in people’s lives, which is part of the design thinking process.”

All that was clearly not possible to achieve during a half-day workshop like the one conducted for Singapore Design Week 2019.

Design thinking is about pulling together all sorts of different perspectives. We want people who come from different parts of the value chain, and who can collaborate.

But she added, “Design thinking is also about pulling together all sorts of different perspectives, which is what we are doing today. We want people who come from different parts of the value chain, and who can collaborate.

“People are diverse and when they all come together, they can create many more ideas than if they did it alone. Our role is to facilitate the conversation.”

Design Thinking 101

The three-hour session at the ThinkPlace headquarters, on the second storey of a shophouse along North Bridge Road, was a fluid exercise.

Using nasi lemak, a favourite local Malay dish, as an entry point, the diverse group broke down the dish into its component ingredients: chicken, chilli, rice, peanuts, cucumbers, ikan bilis (anchovies) and oil. 

Everyone was welcome to add their Nasi Lemak stories to a Post It map of Singapore, from their favourite stalls to memories of Nasi Lemak in days gone by.

In break-out groups, they then analysed the production process of each ingredient – from farming to harvesting, processing, packaging, transport, retailer, and ultimately to the buyer and consumer. They also looked at the interdependency of issues across the food system, and the human stories within it.

They further looked at each stage of the process to examine how threats like climate change would affect each part, and how these effects could be mitigated through better packaging, or better industry collaboration.

Principal consultant Debbie facilitating the sharing of threats and opportunities that participants identified.

Sustainability, including agricultural production, food waste and single-use packaging, emerged as the top concern about the future of food. Upon doing a walk-through, participants chose one area in which they thought they could drive change, before generating ideas.

This was where the diverse areas of expertise from amongst those gathered became apparent. One group proposed alternatives to single-use packaging, like prawn shell film, algae “plastic” and rice husk “plastic”. This was also where Robin Food put their idea on a Post-it, as a solution to food wastage.

Everyone got to vote for the ideas they liked best. The group then thought about what partnerships would be needed to turn these ideas into reality. At least one successful partnership arose for the Robin Food boys. Said Sean, “We met people who are linking us to more food vendors, who might be open to using our app. We may also be sharing our app at an exhibition.”

By bringing the group through a design thinking process – albeit an abbreviated one – ThinkPlace hoped that people would connect and collaborate after the event.

“Singapore has a great eco-system of public, private and international organisations,” said ThinkPlace Managing Director Bill Bannear, when he addressed the group.

“This can lead to some interesting partnerships. If you can achieve one thing today, it would be that you had an interesting conversation with someone, that you refer back to in the weeks to come.”


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Singapore’s highest honour for designers and designs across all disciplines
One of Asia’s premier design festivals that champions design thought leadership
National Design Centre